And so begins the season of Lent, the early spring days that lead us up to the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. And we begin in the desert where Jesus is tested.
Reflection by Rev. Will Sparks
So here we are, on the set of Anything Goes, Highlands United Productions. This is where all the action will happen, on the deck of the SS America as it sails from New York to England. And this is our chancel for the next 5 weeks upon which we will make our way through the season of Lent. The season of Lent has always been a time of introspection, of looking at where we have been and where we are going. And that questioning process this year will have a backdrop of the set of Anything Goes.
Well that was just too sweet an opportunity to let pass. Not only do we have the set of a group of people on a journey, which is arguably the most common metaphor for the community of faith that we have, the journey. But the challenge of Lent is right there in the title: Anything goes. Really?
Ironically, we start the journey from a scriptural perspective in the desert where Jesus is tested 3 times to turn his gospel ship around, or at least give over the helm to the tester, translated in Matthew’s gospel as the devil.
Now first of all, I need to clarify. The devil is really a late addition to the list of characters in our tradition. That is, the guy dressed in red with horns. That figure would be unfamiliar to the original hearers of this story. Rather, they would be thinking Satan, or the Satan, the one who God is talking to in Genesis with Adam and Eve, or in the book of Job that God makes a deal with to test Job’s faith. The Satan is not really the cinematic personification of evil that we think of today but rather a kind of official opposition to God. The one who tests those who are on God’s side.
I say all this because in this story, the devil plays an important roll. I mean, far be it from me to be on the side of the devil, but there wouldn’t be much of a story without him. And he serves a huge purpose in the story. Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordon River. He has received the blessing of God, “you are my beloved son…” And the Spirit then draws him out into the desert for a time of testing. And who better to do the testing that the Satan, the official opposition. The season of Lent is a time to give the official opposition a little leash, so that we can really ask hard questions, really test the sturdiness of our faith.
Any of you remember Peter Rollins, the Irish theological we had come here a while back and talked about Pyrotheology? Well Peter does a program every season of Lent that he calls, “Atheism for Lent.” You kind of let go of your usual Christian fare for a period and give atheist voices some room to speak, as an exercise to test the sturdiness of your faith. Do these atheists have a point to make ever, because if so, their critique may really help us to sharpen up our game. It is like in any high-performance athletics, the best training is a strong opponent. That is the roll the devil plays in this story.
And he really puts it to Jesus. He starts at the most basic level, the appetite. Jesus has been fasting, and he counsels Jesus to use the power he has been given to satisfy his appetite. Appetite is the most basic human drive. It is our survival mechanism. Hungers live in the stem of the brain and are there to keep us alive, but they can also take over. One reason people have fasted as a spiritual practice is to be aware of the way our hungers drive us and to make sure we are their masters and not the other way around.
But then the testing gets a little more sophisticated. He goes after Jesus’ doubt- takes him to the top of the temple and says, throw yourself off and see if this God claims to be here for you actually is. But faith would not be faith if we tested it that way. That would cheapen faith. Our relationship with God must be deeper than cheap tricks like that.
And then finally, he goes after the central question in our faith, the question of power. I can give you power over all this, he says from the top of a high mountain, if you will just worship me. This is the allegiance question. Who are your going to place your trust in? Will it be God, or will it be something else? Who will you worship when you wake up in the morning? Will it be God or will it be, say, the market, or your bank account, or popularity, or status, or any of the smaller gods that try to lay claim on us. Will any of these do, or will it be God, the one who made you, the one who is really trustworthy with your life.
And having withstood the testing of the great Satan, Jesus is cared for by the benevolent spirits of the world, the angels.
It’s a great story and a really great place to start our Lenten journey, because it gives us a framework to open to the testing of our own faith through these next five weeks or so. It is really ok to question, to wrestle with questions of life and faith. In fact it is good to spend a good season throwing every challenge we have at our faith. It will only become stronger through the process.
And the title of the musical sets the theme. Does Anything Go? Really? Jesus was tested in the desert and it really mattered. There are some things he stood for and some things he didn’t, and his relationship with God was at the centre. But in life, sometimes things change. What used to be ok, isn’t anymore, and some things that used to be taboo seem to be acceptable now. So how do we know what is ok and what isn’t? What needs to change and what needs to stay the same?
Our evening speaker series we will pose some big challenges. The presence of drugs in our community: Since a public health emergency was declared in BC 4 years ago, 3600 people have died from overdose, or rather from toxic drugs. 3600! In 4 years! What is that really about, and what needs to change?
Sex and sexuality. This is an area in which the norms have really changed over the years. How do all these changes affect the way we life, the way we parent, and the way we are in the community?
Technology and media have huge affects on our lives, what we see, what we experience, how we relate. That too is a shifting landscape. How do we navigate that world faithfully?
And finally, the last part of life: living well and dying well. Medical assistance in dying has really changed a lot. And we who hold life as a precious gift from God, how do we navigate in this new environment?
Does anything go? Probably not. But I hope you will pick up the question, find a way to wrestle with it, give it some room, listen to voices you don’t often hear, stretch your comfort zone a bit. Asking hard questions is an act of faith. Amen
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